Hash runs are a century-old tradition that very few people know about.
Hash runs are a century-old tradition that very few people know about. (Getty Images)

The Subversive Joy of a Late-Night Hash Run in New York City

Are the Hash House Harriers a nearly century-old orienteering group dash, a drinking club with a running problem, or just Tinder for runners? Our correspondent intended to find out.

Hash runs are a century-old tradition that very few people know about.

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“Are you a virgin?” the fluffer asked.

“Yes—yes, I am,” I answered. It was a Wednesday evening, and I was waiting for a group of strangers in front of the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal. I’d found the location and time of our meeting online, and I’d shown up in my Brooks Ghost sneakers. I was about to experience something that was slightly bizarre, underground, and even cultish: a Hash House Harriers group run.

For the uninitiated, a hash is modeled after Hare and Hounds, the traditional English paper chase game. It’s like a fox hunt, where the hare is the fox and the runners are the hounds. It’s not a race, it isn’t timed, and there are no winners. Instead, everyone is rewarded when they find their way to what’s called the “On In,” usually a bar and always a new location for each hash, where everyone has beer and food. The only reason I even heard of hashing was that a friend mentioned it while telling the story of how she met her husband. As someone who is single, into running, and looking for a new workout, I decided to give hashing a try.

Tonight was my first hash, hence my virgin distinction. The hash’s official greeter, also known as the fluffer, was David Cabrera (hash name: Coneylingus). We waited as about 35 runners gathered in front of the Oyster Bar. There were a few more men than women, ages ranging from 20 to 70-plus. Some had the bodies of ultramarathoners, complete with beards and what appeared to be a total absence of body fat. Most looked like they were clocking serious weekly mileage. Still, the motto of hashing is that it’s “a drinking club with a running problem,” and sure enough, many headed inside the bar for a pre-hash beer. Our running shorts, compression socks, and sneakers stuck out among the after-work suits in the Oyster Bar. Coneylingus told me they referred to nonhashers as muggles, and I could not think of a better way to describe it.

I believe an aerial view of a hash would look like a real-life version of the board game Candy Land. The trail is like a puzzle with marks that are meant to guide the pack—and trick them to occasional dead ends. The hare sets the trail, usually an hour or two before the race. The rule of thumb is that it takes twice as long to lay the trail as it does to run it—the hare walks the course, carefully drawing arrows and other symbols using chalk, flour, paper, or Kool-Aid (if there’s snow). An X with a circle around it forces runners to split off in all directions to look for three consecutive arrows in a row, which indicates the true trail. “YFB,” or “You’ve Been F&%#ed,” means you’ve just followed a false trail and have to turn around. Even when you’re ahead, there’s always the chance you’ll end up sliding back into the Molasses Swamp.

Hashing also borrows from orienteering, a timed race through the woods that involves a map, a compass, and marks. While the hash incorporates off-road running in parks or neighboring forests and uses marks to navigate directions, its runners do not have the benefit of a map or compass. The other element of the run are the hash calls, the most important of which is “On on!” This lets everyone know that you’ve found the true trail. If a runner is not sure where to go, she calls out, “Are you?” which is short for “Are you on the trail?”

As someone who had never heard of hashing until this past summer, what struck me is that it’s been around a long time. Hashing dates back to 1938, when British officers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, started a running club anchored by a hash house—a place to buy cheap food. And so the Hash House Harriers were born. According to the World Harrier Organization, which claims to have the definitive statistics on hashing, 2,036 groups are hashing in 1,326 cities in 184 countries. This thing is huge. If you Google a town in any country and add the word “hash,” there’s a good chance you’ll find a group organizing this secret sport.

I was more than a little nervous about this nighttime five-mile dash. I’d cheated and drawn several hash markings on my palm with a Sharpie just in case I ended up on my own and couldn’t remember what the symbols meant. I asked another runner if he would mind waiting for me if we went into Central Park. He said he would wait.

Soon we headed out onto the sidewalk. It was early October, and the city had finally cooled down to perfect running weather. We ran across the street, jaywalker-style, and then under a building through its carport, where the parking attendant yelled at us. The pack ran past banker types, who were forced to jump aside while the anarchy of our group sprinted by. And there it was: that thrill I hadn’t felt since I ding-dong-ditched the mean neighbor down the street when I was 12.

Some had been doing hashes for decades, and some traveled the world to hash, often buying a plane ticket knowing only that they could crash with fellow hashers. And there were those who pointed out their exes across the garden—yes, they had met hashing.

Here’s another thing about HASHNYC: I’ve been told it’s one of the fastest-paced hashes in the world. After all, the city is home to a serious running community and a high percentage of Type A personalities, and some people run every hash in the city, which averages about three a week—one in Brooklyn, two in Manhattan. My pace is on the slower side. When I ran the Brooklyn Half Marathon, I was unable to shake the guy holding the “2 hour 45 minute” pace card. I could never prove if it was deliberate, but there were times I swear that sign was carried directly above my head. And yet I kept up in this hash. I was digging the Mischief Night high.

We ran uptown and under the 59th Street Bridge, and again we came to a check. “On on!” We took off toward the water, running by some sketchy construction and up a ramp and along the East River. Neon signs reflected off the water, and for a short time a seagull flew beside me. The serene moment was broken only when I jumped over a dead rat.

After we crossed Fifth Avenue, I saw the man I’d asked to be my park buddy. “You told me to wait,” he said. Chivalry is alive and well and waiting on a dark corner leading into Central Park.

Together, we took off along an unlit trail that went up a rocky ledge. This is where a brief bit of orienteering came into play. It was almost pitch-black, and the marks were difficult to see, but other runners ahead of us called out, “Stairs!” Up we ran into the Summer House, a small open hut where two lovers were making out in a corner. All I could think was, I never see New York City like this.

Coneylingus believes the thrill of the hash lies in something more primal than the thrill of jaywalking. “It’s the hound in us chasing the hare,” he told me. He was right: That primal fear of being left behind and lost in the dark pushed me to shave a few minutes off my regular pace, and soon we were at the evening’s On In, Bedford Falls, where we headed to the backyard garden for cups of water and pitchers of beer. Coneylingus, back in fluffer mode, told me that I would soon be “entering the circle” for my initiation.

There was only one other virgin that night, and we were both called into the middle of the circle of runners. I had seen lots of photos of people drinking from a plunger in the group’s online photo gallery, and I had worried this was a form of hazing I’d have to endure. Luckily, no plunger appeared, but the whole thing did resemble what I imagine it’s like to be inducted into a sorority. There was a song: “Here’s to the virgins, they’re true blue…” The chorus, “Down, down, down, down,” was our cue to gulp the entire cup of beer and then dump any remaining liquid on our heads. I was informed that my “mother hash” would always be HASHNYC.

Over pizza, I learned that some of the runners really were ultramarathoners and that many of the hashers were clocking 60 miles a week. Some had been doing hashes for decades, and some traveled the world to hash, often buying a plane ticket knowing only that they could crash with fellow hashers. And there were those who pointed out their exes across the garden—yes, they had met hashing.

The evening’s hare, Wed Not Dead (aka Diane Lowy), admitted that at times the hash is Tinder in real life. “Lots of people get together. There’s this one woman who shows up at the hash when she wants to get laid, and she does.” I got the sense that this is a tight community of friends who like to roast each other and knew each other well from years of hashing, who recognized a new face, and who went out of their way to make me feel welcome. It was clearly a refuge in a city that holds anonymity as a virtue.

By the time I crawled into my Lyft, reeking of sweat with a touch of adrenaline, I was surprised by how much fun it had been, how fast I’d run, and how much I loved the sweet subversive thrill of hashing in Manhattan. On the ride home, I wondered what dirty hash name I would one day earn, because I knew I would be back for more.

From Outside Magazine, November 2016 Lead Photo: Getty Images